Posts Tagged ‘ISIL’

A short piece (that was done in the form of an interview with Andrew Mueller who then published it) for a new site called The Question that is focused on answering key questions about specific topics of the day.

Is Islamic State losing its war?

In the short term, at least, they seem to be on the back foot. The land they control in Syria in Iraq is shrinking – and they controlled, for a time, a territory the size of the United Kingdom. Their leading people on the battlefield, quite senior people, are being killed. Their capability to launch the sort of attacks they have before is ebbing away, which suggests a period of relative decline.

Their goal was always to turn the entire planet to God’s greater glory – to bring about the end of days and the second coming of the Lord. This is a group that ultimately has a milleniarian vision of transforming the world in God’s image. That’s a very high bar to clear, but they start with what they start with, and build upwards. For IS, they were always very focused on their Levantine space, and if you read the ancient texts, you’ll see that those lands are very important, as the place where the war that will transform everything will start. So they had a vision of the world as it should be, but they’re also people who don’t much like the governments in those places, which leads to this mesh of personal angers and a bigger ideology which knit quite tightly together.

What is still going well for them is that they continue to exist, and are able to launch some quite substantial attacks, and to control a certain amount of territory. For a group like this, survival is important. And the attacks outside their territory are important, in a number of ways. They’re attacks on an enemy – you’re fighting us, so we’ll fight you. And there’s a political idea behind it as well – they’re trying to stir an ultimate clash of civilisations between the West and Islam and bring about the end of days.

With the taking out of their leaders, there’s a debate in the counter-terrorism community about what it actually means. Some people think decapitation of a terrorist organisation leads to bigger problems – what you’ll sometimes see is that after the removal of a senior figure, factions within the organisation will want to rise up and prove themselves, which they’ll do by doing something more atrocious than the last guy.

You look at al-Shabab in Somalia for example – their leader was killed, the next guy comes in, and you see the Westgate mall attack. The other model is that if you decapitate groups, they sometimes wither and die. You think of the Shining Path in Peru – their leader was taken out, and it kind of disappeared, because it turns out it was really a one-man band.

But an aggressive attrition of the middle ranks of people does have an impact on a group’s ability to function. If you keep hammering that middle level, you break the fighters away from the leadership, and that’s what we’ve seen happening to Islamic State recently. The leaders have to stay hidden, and aren’t in contact with many people. But if you take out the people around them, their ability to direct the organisation changes – if the guy who was looking after the accounts gets killed, who has that information now? Maybe there was a guy who knew where all the safe houses were. Look at Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was very involved with Islamic State’s external operations – when he was killed, a lot of those would have been lost, or confused. A lot of these relationships are built on trust, and that doesn’t automatically transfer to the next guy.

The numbers which have been circulating recently suggest that the numbers of people from Europe going to fight with Islamic State is down to 10% of what it was last year. There are two main reasons for that. One is that security forces in Europe and elsewhere have a much better understanding of how recruitment networks function, and how to disrupt them. The other is the fact that the attraction of the group has reduced: Islamic State is no longer as powerful and successful as it was. If I’m going to go off and fight for someone, I don’t want to fight with a bunch of losers.

Raffaello Pantucci is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

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And a final catch-up piece, this time a chapter in a report colleagues (Liz and Jonathan) at RUSI pulled together looking at the UK government’s response to the threat from ISIS. The whole thing is available here for free, but I have pasted the first few paragraphs here to give you a flavour.

V. ISIS, Terrorism and the UK

Raffaello Pantucci

ISIS has rapidly moved from being a group seen merely as an affiliate or offshoot of Al-Qa’ida to being recognised as one of the principal international terrorist threats faced by the UK. The threat comprises various strands: the number of British citizens travelling to fight alongside ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the possibility that they may return with the intent of undertaking an attack on British soil; possible attacks on UK territory by individuals who have not fought abroad but who are nevertheless inspired or facilitated by ISIS; and the possibility of attacks on British interests and citizens abroad.

It is true that ISIS remains part of a larger threat picture, and care needs to be taken to avoid exaggerating the domestic threat posed by the group, which would only serve to inflate its importance while potentially distracting the UK from other menaces both on and off the battlefield. Indeed, British citizens are travelling to the Middle East to fight not only with ISIS, but also with groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, Al-Qa’ida’s principal affiliate on the battlefield in Syria. Nevertheless, the threat posed by ISIS, at home and abroad, remains a serious one that the UK must persist in addressing.

The picture is complicated as it remains unclear whether ISIS – or any of its affiliates in Africa or Asia – has taken a strategic decision, at a senior level, to launch a large-scale campaign of terrorism outside its immediate territory (in contrast to the wave of more loosely linked incidents witnessed so far). Currently, those plots already disrupted in the UK have demonstrated a confused link to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq. Nevertheless, given the reach of ISIS via the Internet and the large numbers travelling to join its ranks, the problem remains a substantial one. Bolstering agency capacity and building community resilience will help to some degree, but the threat will only be eradicated once stemmed at source.

This chapter outlines the nature of the current threat posed by ISIS before exploring the response by the UK’s police and security agencies, which involves disrupting the plans of both would-be attackers and aspiring travellers alike. It will conclude by offering some ideas about how to counter the particular threat that the UK faces from ISIS at home.

For entire article and report

A new brief reaction piece for my home institute RUSI looking at some of the current trends in ISIS and jihadism. My preference is to use ISIS, but it appears as though the institutional choice is Daesh. Undoubtedly more on this topic to come. In the meantime, I have been doing book promotion events around town, thanks to those who have hosted me and am looking forward to future ones. For those interested, here is me talking to the Henry Jackson Society. I am going to be at the Bradford Literature Festival this weekend, the Hay Festival on the 31st May, and the Lewes Festival on July 18th. And hopefully more of those to come! Please also feel free to leave comments on Amazon about the book should you read it!
The Texas Attack: An Expression of Daesh’s Reach
RUSI Analysis, 11 May 2015 | By Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies
The jihadist movement known as Daesh has claimed responsibility for the aborted attack on an art contest in Texas. But other than shared motives, there are hardly anyreal  linkages. Overreaction and misreading of the threat will merely play into their hands.
Garland Shooting Perpetrators 2015

The claim by Daesh (or ISIS, as it is also known as) of some connection and responsibility for the attempted attack on Sunday 3 May 2015 in Texas is credible. While it is unlikely that the senior leadership within the group tasked the American pair or saw the event in Texas as a globally significant target, it is perfectly possible that it will emerge that the two men had at least some online connection to the group and were spurred into action by a combination of this contact and the group’s regular exhortations to its followers to launch attacks in the West.

At the same time, it is not clear that this is in any way an expression of the beginning of a campaign by the group to launch terrorist attacks outside its territory or that we need to worry about Daesh anymore now than before. Rather, Daesh continues to show itself to be an opportunistically canny organisation that is able to read global trends and stoke public debates at the right moment to maximise their apparent reach and power.

The threat picture for the immediate future is likely to be a continuing pattern of similar attacks, alongside a continuing potential menace of more classically directed terrorist cells. This seemingly enhanced threat, however, has to be kept in perspective and care needs to be paid not to overreact. A measured response will help deal with the problem in the longer term, while an exaggerated response will only fuel it.

Daesh Going Out?

Daesh remains a primarily Middle Eastern focused organisation, intent on growing and consolidating its territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, over the past few months there has been an increasing level of connectivity and interaction between its core in Mosul/Raqqa and its regional Wilayats (provincial governorates) in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen. The degree of strength of these regional connections is not always clear, though looking at the Libyan case in particular, it is clear that there is some strong link between the centre and what is happening in that country in terms of ideology, means and direction.

A series of attacks on foreign targets in Tripoli, grim beheading videos being done to a schedule dictated from Syria/Iraq and stories of fighters and money flowing from the Levant to Libya point to something more than just an ideological affiliation.

In Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen at least there is some evidence of ideological and possibly individual, but less clear is the degree to which this is a strong flow with much direction, rather than exploratory links. On the purely aspirational end of the scale, there is the link to Boko Haram – an organisation that has shown itself to be even more opportunistic than Daesh and has proclaimed links to Al-Qa’ida and others repeatedly over the years with little tangible evidence of much by way of strong connections.

In parallel to this there has been the growth in inspired and instigated attacks in the lone actor model: plots undertaken by individuals or small cells lacking any clear command and control from an outside organisation. Choosing soft targets that can broadly be captured under the aegis of the global struggle between Islam and the West, these individuals get caught up in the fervour and hysteria around Daesh and launch attacks at home in the West under their own direction.

Some cases appear to demonstrate links back to Syria (like Mehdi Nemmouche in Brussels) some may be reacting to travel restrictions (like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa), while others appear  simply to be attracted by the allure and hysteria of the group (like the spate of incidents in France late last year or Man Haroun Monis in Australia). For some of these individuals, Daesh’s narrative is simply the loudest in the public conversation for them to draw on.

Lone actor or copy-cat, whichever model it is, Daesh can subsequently claim it or praise the incident and appear as though it is somehow responsible for a global wave of terror.

Extensions of longer-term trends

In reality, both trends are extensions of what has been going on with jihadist terrorism for the past few years. Since around 2010 al Qaeda core’s capability and links globally have shrunk as the group’s ideology has increasingly found that the local causes that it would parasitically attach itself to increasingly moved towards advancing their own more local agendas rather than the group’s global directives. When launching attacks, regional affiliates would still use the jihadist rhetoric and targeting choices, but it was increasingly hard to see strong levels of command and control from the core. There were of course exceptions to this like Yemen where AQAP retains a strong core following loyal to the movement’s globalist perspective. But for the most part regional affiliate groups increasingly drifted away from the core’s orbit as Al-Qa’ida’s remnant leadership spent its time hiding from drones in Pakistan’s hinterlands.

The result has been a fracturing of the global jihadist movement operating under Al-Qa’ida’s ideological banner. As leaders have been killed, it has led to groups splintering into different factions. Furthermore, with a weakened core, regional affiliates have shifted in their targeting and intent back towards their own regions. In launching attacks they will still choose international targets as these bring attention and appear to be part of a global cause. Often, however, the degree to which they have been directed from the core is limited. Examples include the In Amenas attack in Algeria by an off-shoot of AQIM, or the al Shabaab linked attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

Into this fractured scene steps Daesh, offering a more hardline ideology, a new leader claiming to be Amir al Mu’mineen (commander of the faithful) who commands a territory he declares a Caliphate. Here is a narrative of success that stands in contrast to Al-Qa’ida’s declining fortunes. This quickly offers an appealing alternate power base that becomes the opposite pole to the current established jihadist narrative directed by Al-Qa’ida and draws in many of the disaffected and detached affiliate groups. Daesh appeal to them is not necessarily the ideology of the group, but rather the fact the group offers an alternate expression and successful banner to the status quo for them to attach themselves to.

The lone actor phenomenon is also not one that Daesh can claim stake to owning. Lone actor plots started to emerge in 2007/2008 (arguably Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed’s attempted double bombing in London and Glasgow in 2007 was an early expression demonstrating no level of direction by a group, though some connectivity to terrorist networks in Iraq), and have been an increasingly regular feature of the terrorist threat picture since then. In 2010 Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sought to try to harness the growing wave of such attacks and spur them further on through Inspire magazine and its ideology of ‘just do it’ attacks and ‘open source jihad’ that made jihadi terrorism accessible and actionable by everybody.

But there was little tangible evidence the magazine did much more than stoke fires that were already burning. The magazine became a staple feature of terrorism investigations. A growing number of plotters tried to build bombs to the magazines design and in online forums extremists increasingly talked proudly of being ‘lone wolves.’ But the trend towards this type of terrorism was underway prior to the magazine and there has been little clear evidence that the magazine can be singularly blamed for any specific plot.

Daesh has merely taken this strategy to the next level through its active promotion of the idea of such attacks through speeches, magazines and increasingly through individual fighters who connect through social media to the aspirant keyboard warriors who have not chosen to make the trip to the Levant, but seek it out instead online. By creating more noise around the idea of such attacks, they become more attractive and the group creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in its narrative.

This results in more people hearing it and more disaffected folk concluding that if they want to make themselves heard (for whatever reason) then Daesh’s ideology is the one to attach themselves to. All of this needs to be borne in mind against the backdrop that the ideology of violent Islamist inspired terrorism as one of the dominant global anti-establishment ideologies of the moment. Previously disaffected folk might be drawn to other movements, Al-Qa’ida or Daesh are now the alternative global movement. Again, rather than creating something new, Daesh (and Al-Qa’ida before it), have simply harnessed and attempted to spur on a trend that was already underway.

The Danger of Over-reaction

The importance of understanding the proper roots of these trends is to mitigate against the dangers of overreaction to them. If the Western reaction to the attack in Texas (and other future possible attacks) is to attack the organisation in a large fashion involving deployed armies and forces, this will have exactly the effect the group is likely hoping for.

An overreaction draws it into more direct conflict with the West making it both seem more powerful than it is, showing it able to stand up and fight directly with the world’s superpowers. It feeds into the group’s narrative of where it stands in the world and helps it become more important than it really is.

Instead, the focus needs to be on fixing the underlying reasons behind the contexts where the group’s ideology is able to take root. In Syria this means finding ways of bringing the brutal civil war to a close. In Iraq it involves building a participatory government so that the country’s Sunni’s do not look to groups like Daesh as defenders. In Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Egypt it involves solving local problems that will help reduce the space in which the group is able to permeate.

And in the West, it involves engaging with people who are so disaffected from societies that they feel they want to rebel violently against them. None of this is easy, and for Western government’s to succeed the reality is they need to target limited resources on specific countries abroad in a global division of labour, and at home need to find ways of developing grass roots programmes to engage with specific individuals who are drifting towards extremist ideologies. But key to making sure that we do not prolong this problem any longer than it needs to be is a clear understanding of the nature of the threat that is faced.

A new piece for my institutional home RUSI, looking at the threat from ISIS in the context of the history of the group. In the wake of the brutal Foley murder, there was a spike in media interest and I spoke on related topics to the Australian, Metro, Global PostGuardian, NBCSlate, in this conversation with USA Today, they drew the conclusion I meant poverty was a driver of why people would go and join to fight in Syria/Iraq. Not quite my intention, it is more about blocked mobility sometimes providing people with an opening to radical ideas rather than deprivation driving them towards it. Were poverty a driver of terrorism, there would be many more terrorists in the world. Earlier I spoke to Channel 4 about ISIS camps in Syria/Iraq, to Voice of America about the group more broadly, about British gangsta’s going to fight to the Sunday Express, as well as to the Evening Standard about gangsta rapper MC now fighting in Syria/Iraq Abdel Bary. Beyond ISIS and Iraq/Syria, I spoke to Voice of America about Xinjiang and with the South China Morning Post about this coming week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) counter-terror drill

Is ISIS a Threat to the UK?

RUSI Analysis, 21 Aug 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The murder of American journalist James Foley brought global attention to the menace of ISIS. But what kind of a threat does the group actually post beyond the Levant?

British jihadists, Isis recruitment video

image from here

The cruel beheading by a possibly British ISIS fighter of American journalist James Foley is the latest act of brutality by a group whose willingness to use such violence continues to reach new depths.

However, in the understandable consternation around the group and its activity, care should be taken to understand better the exact nature of the threat that this group poses. ISIS is working hard to try to overturn the current Westphalian order with its repeated invocations of destroying the Sykes-Picot borders of the Middle East and has quite successfully taken over an ever-expanding chunk of the Levant. The question is whether the group remains principally a regional threat or an international one.

The best answer is to look more closely at the group’s history. ISIS (or Islamic State as they refer to themselves) is a group that has waxed and waned over the years. Borne out of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s group that he founded in Herat, Afghanistan in the late 1990s, it came to more international prominence in in August 2003 when they attacked the Jordanian Embassy and UN Headquarters in Baghdad and a Shia shrine in Najaf. In the process they killed hundreds including UN Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of the SCIRI Party and one of the leaders of Shia Iraq. In time, the group, which in 2006 changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) to make it sound more Iraqi, suffered public blowback at its unremitting and brutal violence with the Sahwa ‘awakening’ movement as Sunni’s grew tired of the unremitting murder and sectarian tensions that ISI was stirring up.

But for all its brutality within Iraq, the group did not much stretch beyond its domestic borders. Under Zarqawi’s watch in November 2005 they launched a series of three coordinated attacks on Western hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing 60 and injuring over 100. It was possibly linked to some attempts to attack Israel, but these amounted to little. This notwithstanding the fact that the group had the technical expertise, contacts, and fighters to use as tools to launch attacks against the West or elsewhere.

The Threat Today

Cut to today and we have a group that has formally severed its links with Al Qa’ida and established a dominion of sorts over chunks of Iraq and Syria. A decade on, it is still resorting to sending political messages through the brutal and public beheading of American hostages. We have yet, however, to see confirmed evidence of the group actually launching attacks outside its immediate territory (beyond possible links to incidents elsewhere in the Levant). This is not to say that we have not seen plots emanate from foreign fighter networks linked to the group. Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national, had allegedly fought alongside ISIS for some time prior to returning to Europe where he took it upon himself to murder four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels. And while his was the only successful attack, at least four other plots have been disrupted within European borders in which individuals fought in Syria (and possibly Iraq) before coming back home and undertaking plotting clearly in the direction of trying to do something within Europe rather than back in the Levant.

But absent from these reported plots is much evidence of direction by ISIS. There have been suggestions of directed plots linked to Jabhat al Nusrah, but the information around these has been sketchy. Rather, it seems as though these plots for the most part seem to be undertaken by individuals who have battlefield experience and decide to come back and do something under their own steam. In many ways, this actually reflects the historical experience with foreigners who fight or train alongside groups in Iraq: Bilal Abdulla and Taimour Abdulwahab al Abdaly both spent some time in Iraq alongside the insurgency before heading back to the UK and Sweden respectively to try to carry out attacks. In neither case was their evidence produced of direction off the battlefield, though their cases illustrate clear examples of individuals that a group like ISIS could have used had it wanted to launch attacks against Europe.

A Menace, Yes. But is ISIS a Threat to the West?

It is clear that ISIS is a menace that leaders rightly focus on. It has the potential to upend the Middle East and cause death and misery to thousands. But it is not as of yet clear that it is a group with the desire and intent to launch itself against the West and Europe in particular. It has the means at its disposal to launch such attacks and has rhetorically threatened such attacks, but so far we have not seen these clearly materialise.

This is of course not to say that they might not take place. Clearly, ISIS is a group that has evolved over time, and it might yet evolve in a strategic direction that leads to a concerted effort to launch attacks against the West. But as we can see from the fact that in a decade of unleashing brutality, its approach to attracting publicity has little changed, it is possible that its aims and goals have equally shifted little and it continues to be more interested in regional ambitions.

The significance of this distinction lies in the subsequent official reaction in Western capitals to the group. Foley’s brutal murder, like the group’s earlier gains in Iraq, were predictable, but were greeted with shock which mandated major response – a product of the relative inattention that was being paid to what was happening in Syria and Iraq. The danger is that in the absence of a clear plot linked to the group, attention might fade and the group will be seen as a regional irritation that can be managed, rather than an organisation that requires focused extrication and where possible eradication.

This difficult conclusion is one that will only be achieved over a lengthy and committed timeline involving a complicated array of bolstering local forces, cutting deals with tribes to undermine the group, as well as focused counter-terrorism efforts to eliminate leaders and cut off supply routes. More strategically, an inclusive government needs to be fostered in Iraq and the civil war in Syria needs to be brought to some resolution. None of these are easy solutions, but they are long-term solutions to what is necessary to finally bring some peace to the brutalised Levant.

My latest for Jane’s Intelligence Review about European Foreign Fighters going to Syria. Unfortunately, its behind a firewall, so I cannot just post it here now, but they have agreed to let me put up what is below so far with the rest later in the month. Get in touch if you have any questions. In the meantime I did interviews for the Sunday Times on the same subject, something with Sky News about prison radicalisation and something for NBC about the Iraq-Syria troubles and its links back home. Many thanks to the Airey Neave Trust for their support of my work on this topic.

UPDATE: March 22, 2014 – per agreement with Jane’s I have now posted the entire article here. Thanks to my editors!

Foreign Fighters – Battle-hardened Europeans return from Syria

Key Points
  • Rising numbers of European citizens travelling to fight for Islamist groups in the Syrian civil war increase the domestic terrorism threat as they return home.
  • European fighters in Syria are from a diverse range of nationalities and ethnicities, with the domestic threat seemingly most elevated in the Balkans, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.
  • The risk of domestic militant attacks in European countries will rise further should Syria’s civil war continue.

Increasing numbers of European citizens have travelled to Syria to fight for Islamist groups in the civil war. Raffaello Pantucci examines the threat facing Europe from fighters returning home and the risk of domestic militant attacks as a result.

Syrian militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) on 7 December 2013 posted an announcement on its Facebook page stating that a Luxembourg national using the battlefield name Abu Huthaifa had died in al-Safira, Aleppo governorate. The news – although unconfirmed in any mainstream press – marked a new chapter in the history of global jihadism.
As the first national from Luxembourg publicly known to have died fighting alongside jihadist groups in Syria, he became another ‘first’ in a war that is rapidly eclipsing all previous jihadist battlefields. For European security officials who are increasingly concerned about the conflict, 2013 marked a new high in a trend that had been rising since 2012.
In its annual report on terrorist trends in Europe, the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2013, the European Police Office (Europol) reported that, “in 2012, there was a distinct rise in the number of EU citizens travelling to Syria, in a number of cases fighting alongside groups associated with religiously inspired terrorism”.

In 2013, this trend accelerated further, with an assessment published by researcher Aaron Zelin of King’s College London suggesting that over the period from April to December 2013 the number of Europeans heading to fight in Syria had almost tripled, and could total between 5,000 to 10,000.

More worryingly, in 2013, further evidence started to emerge suggesting that the return of these fighters home may have increased terrorist threats in Europe.

Jihadist profiles

Little is known about Abu Huthaifa. The brief statement posted about him on JeM’s Facebook page indicated that he had entered Syria through Turkey and that he might be as young as 18 years old. Beyond this, he was a young Caucasian wearing traditional army garb. However, in his portrait there are a number of features observed among the European contingent fighting in Syria.

First, the lack of clarity about his ethnicity reflects the broad background of the European foreign fighter contingent in Syria. Unlike the civil conflict in Libya, which seemed to draw mostly, but not only, Libyan Europeans to fight, the civil war in Syria has attracted Europeans of various ethnic backgrounds, from Arabs and South Asians to converts of every ethnicity.

A review of available information about foreign fighters in Syria reveals that the broad base of fighters in the country reflects the ethnic breakdown of Muslims across Europe. According to the 2011 census, the majority of Muslims in the UK are of South Asian origin. Citizens of that origin equally represent the largest contingent of British foreign fighters in Syria.

Europeans of multiple ethnicities with distinct national accents appear in videos recorded by jihadist groups on the battlefield. One video discovered in early June 2013, which purported to have been taken in March, showed a group including Dutch-speaking individuals beheading someone identified as a Syrian government supporter, with at least one of those involved speaking Flemish (Belgian Dutch).

Other videos to emerge actively encourage individuals to join the fighting in their native languages: English – by a Briton of seemingly African origin talking by the side of the road as he loads a pistol; Swedish – by Swedes of Arab origin; Danish; French; and other languages.

German authorities have grown increasingly concerned about the activity of a 38-year-old former rapper, Denis Mamadou Cuspert. A Ghanaian-German convert, he was known by his stage name Deso Dogg or his battlefield kunya (an honorific title) Abu Talha al-Almani. Prominent for his radical views in Germany before going to Syria, Cuspert has become the face of German jihad in Syria, releasing videos of himself rapping and calling on others to join the fight. It is unknown whether or not he is still alive.

Second, Abu Huthaifa’s age reflects the fact that jihad in Syria remains primarily attractive to the younger demographic, with a large number of teenagers in particular drawn to the fight. In October, Burkhard Freier, head of the North Rhine-Westphalia branch of the German domestic intelligence agency Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), told the ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) television network that his service had “observed adolescents who departed for Syria in order to fight there”.

In September, he reported that a group of more than 20 young German Muslims had gone from Germany to Turkey and onwards to Syria. Among the group there were five teenagers, including a 15-year-old. In December, the minister of the interior of the German federal state of Hesse, Boris Rhein, highlighted a study commissioned by his ministry, which suggested that of 23 males who had gone to fight in Syria, nine were still at school.

In Norway, a pair of Somali-born sisters aged 16 and 19 declared in an email to their parents, “Something needs to be done [about Syria]. We want to help the Muslims, and the only way to do so is to be with them in their pains and their joy.” The girls’ father tracked them down in Syria, but failed to persuade them to return. In Belgium, the worried parents of two teenagers – Jejoen Bontinck and Brian de Mulder – separately spoke to the international media in March and April of 2013, expressing their concerns about their sons, who had gone to fight in Syria.

However, the spectrum of fighters also includes those who are middle-aged. Abdal Munem Mustafa Halima (also known as Abu Basir al-Tartusi) – a London-based extremist preacher, believed to be in his 50s and originally from Syria – emerged in videos published online by the group Ansar al-Sham in October 2012, seemingly addressing crowds in Latakia. One video posted on the video-sharing website YouTube is dated 8 August 2012.

In February 2013, reports emerged that Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, a 39-year-old former Guantánamo Bay camp detainee, had died fighting four months after arriving in Syria. Abderrahmane was born in Denmark. At the age of seven he moved to Algeria with his family and then returned to Denmark in his late teens. Formerly a popular techno DJ, he became concerned by the suffering of Muslims around the world and trained in Afghanistan. In February 2002, he was captured and handed over to the US forces, which held him in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp for two years before releasing him to Denmark, where he wrote a book about his experiences, protested against Danish support of American foreign policy, and was imprisoned for credit card fraud.

The reason for Abderrahmane’s decision to go to Syria was unclear, with the Facebook group Islamisk Budskab (Islamic Message), which posted news of his death, merely saying that he “packed his backpack, said goodbye to his wife and children, and gone off [sic] to Kastrup Airport [Copenhagen Airport]”.

However, the average age of foreign jihadists seems to be somewhere between the mid-teens and middle age. In his detailed public records study of 18 Swedish nationals who had fought in Syria, Swedish researcher and journalist Per Gudmundson found that the fighters’ average age was 23.5 years. The results of this study were published in the September 2013 edition of the New York City Combating Terrorism Center’s (CTC) monthly publication CTC Sentinel.

In June 2013, Belgian minister of the interior Joëlle Milquet stated that the average age of Belgian nationals fighting in Syria was between 23 and 25 years old. A BBC radio File on Four programme from October quoted UK officials who told Shiraz Maher, a researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London, that the average age of Britons going to fight was in their 20s. Public data and specific instances across Europe suggest that the majority of those reported to be fighting in Syria are in their 20s, with a few more seasoned fighters in their 30s.

Moreover, although the overwhelming majority of those travelling to Syria are men, there has been some evidence of young women also going to the battlefield, but it remains unclear what roles they perform. The case of the teenage Norwegian sisters has already been mentioned, and a report for the UK’s Channel 4 television channel from July also highlighted the case of British citizens “Maryam” and “Aisha”. The two women were living with their husbands, who were fighting alongside the Sunni militia Katiba al Muhajireen in Syria.

Having converted to Islam four years before, Maryam decided to move to Syria in early 2013, where she met her Swedish-Arab husband. Aisha moved to Syria with her British husband, and the two families lived in the same building near the Syrian frontlines. According to the documentary, the men fought together, while the women stayed behind to look after their children.

There are more such cases of married partners moving to Syria. A report in the Bosnian press published in December highlighted the case of approximately 10 married couples who had gone to Syria, with some of them taking children who were as young as three months old.

Although many women appear to adopt domestic roles, some have died on the battlefield. In late May, the Syrian government published pictures of what purported to be the passport of a British man, an American woman, and a third individual killed in a car outside Idlib in the northwest. It transpired that the British man was in fact alive, because he had handed over his passport to his handlers, who then gave it to someone else – a typical practice for foreign fighters in Syria. The American woman was identified as Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a 33-year-old convert whose death was confirmed by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The details of her case remain unclear, but Mansfield’s death demonstrated that some foreign females who go to Syria also take on frontline roles.

Travel and recruitment

A third element that Abu Huthaifa’s case highlights is the method of travelling to Syria. Having entered the country through Turkey, his case reveals the main route used by European foreign fighters to the battlefield. In most cases, individuals travel to Turkey and from there cross the porous border into Syria, where they connect with Islamist groups on the ground.

Sometimes it is done by road under the auspices of aid convoys from Europe. The convoys often carry genuine medical supplies or other essential goods and are driven by individuals who have raised money with a genuine intent to hand it over to refugees. Yet often unwittingly, the convoys also transport individuals who seek to join jihadist groups in Syria. As a result, border authorities at the UK port of Dover frequently stop and search suspicious individuals in convoys under Schedule 7 on port and border controls of the UK Terrorism Act 2000.

Others fly into Turkey (sometimes on unused package holidays), using the country’s well-connected main cities as points of entry from where they travel to the Syrian border by internal transport. In other instances, individuals take circuitous routes across Europe, driving to a smaller European airport to then take a flight to Turkey. Some go through North African countries such as Egypt and then take flights on to Lebanon or Turkey.

A senior Turkish official at a presentation in London in late October 2013 reported that Turkish authorities had prevented several hundred individuals from crossing the border into Syria. However, given the reported number of European fighters on the ground, which could be in the low thousands, this highlights the porosity of the border. According to media reports from early December, Turkey informed its European partners that during 2013 it had arrested and deported approximately 1,110 EU citizens who had arrived in Turkey with the intention of joining jihadist groups in Syria; requests for their detention had been received from other countries or the sharing of intelligence through the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol).

The fourth element of Abu Huthaifa’s profile becomes salient once he arrived in the country. Given that his biography was posted on a Facebook page that is managed by a group close to one of Al-Qaeda’s affiliates – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – it seems likely that he was serving alongside this group. According to Zelin’s study, only 20% of subjects reported group affiliation; the two primary Al-Qaeda affiliates on the battlefield, based on their responses, were ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Nevertheless, although these groups attract many of the foreign fighters, they are not the only ones that draw Europeans to their ranks. Numerous other groups also count on European members, including Jund al-Sham, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Jund al-Khilafah.

From a threat perspective, those sub-groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda are of the greatest concern as their rhetoric and approach hardly differ, and it is likely that a number of plots have been initiated by groups associated with them.

It is currently unclear how actively those groups are recruiting for the battlefield in Syria, or whether individuals are being drawn there by a compelling news narrative that attracts them to fight. It appears that extremist groups operating camps on the ground in Syria have a vetting system, as prospective jihadists often need to have a group connection back home to support them as they travel to the battlefield. Volunteers are usually expected to pay substantial amounts of money for their training and are required to hand over their documents upon arrival in Syria. These are often circulated among other individuals in the group for use as false identification.

Many of those travelling to Syria also appear to be individuals who have previously been involved in a terrorist act or criminal investigations in their home countries. Their exact number is not available, but many media reports suggest that such individuals have criminal records for either extremism or common criminality. Per Gudmundson’s study of Swedish fighters indicated that at least eight out of the 18 subjects had criminal records.

Those connected to recognised radical movements include a group in Bosnia that was linked to Mevludin JaÜarevic, who opened fire at the US embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011; and the extremist Belgian group Shariah4Belgium, which was associated with a number of cases of radicalisation of individuals who went to fight in Syria. In Europol’s TE-SAT 2013, the agency specifically identified Shariah4Belgium as contributing to “the radicalisation and engagement of EU citizens in the Syrian conflict”.

Returnee threat

Shariah4Belgium has become notorious among European affiliates of the British group al-Muhajiroun – initially established in 1996 in the UK by now-excluded preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed and is currently overseen by preacher Anjem Choudary – because of allegations in the Belgian press that individuals connected to Shariah4Belgium in Syria had been recorded threatening attacks in Europe. For example, a Facebook message was sent to Dutch-language Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws listing a series of targets in Antwerp and Brussels to be attacked on 31 December 2013.

In July 2012, one of the leaders of Shariah4Belgium, 22-year-old Houssien Elouassaki, was sentenced to 200 hours of community service in Belgium for “insults, threats, and racist comments” to a police officer. He failed to serve his sentence and subsequently fled to Syria, where he became the leader of a group of approximately 35-40 Belgians who were connected with Jabhat al-Nusra.

In April 2013, Elouassaki’s younger brother Hakim returned home from Syria to Vilvoorde, Belgium, having been seriously injured. Houssien was killed fighting in Syria on 13 September, according to sources quoted in the Belgian press. Based on reports in Belgian media verified by official sources, Houssien was overheard talking about wanting to attack the Palais de Justice in Brussels. Whether or not these threats were anywhere near becoming actual plots remains unclear.

A far more dangerous militant cell was discovered in Kosovo in early November. Kosovar authorities conducted operations in the cities of Pristina and Gjilan, arresting six ethnic Albanians. A seventh suspect escaped. Two of the men were alleged to have attacked a pair of American Mormon missionaries in Pristina on 3 November, and those group members were arrested as they tried to purchase weapons from undercover officers. The status of legal proceedings against those detained was unknown at the time of going to press.

According to the authorities’ briefing with the Associated Press, the investigation into the cell had apparently lasted three months, and following the interception of a telephone call in which group members were heard discussing a possible attack in an unnamed European country, the group was arrested.

The group was found to have in its possession a sniper rifle, a carbine, an assault rifle, two handguns, 1,200 rounds for an AK-47 assault rifle, and explosive materials for possibly making an improvised explosive device (IED). According to officials talking to the press at the time, two of the detainees had fought in Syria, and the broader cell was linked to a wider community of radicals who had been travelling back and forth to Syria.

Far more mature than the threats emanating from the Belgian group, the Kosovo plot was of the type with links to Syria that concerns European security services, namely, individuals with battlefield experience and access to weapons who return home with the intent to carry out an attack. Kosovar authorities reported that following the arrests they received threats and demands to release the detainees, identified in the Serbian press as a group known as ‘Jihad of Kosovo’.

The Albanian group’s targeting was not clear, but a long tradition of jihadist fighting in the Balkans has made the region a source of concern for authorities across Europe, with the problem aggravated by the fact that an estimated 150 Albanians are believed by Kosovar authorities to be fighting in Syria.

Despite the apparent severity of the Albanian threat, the most serious warnings are increasingly coming from the UK. The director general of the Security Service (MI5), Andrew Parker, and the head of the Counter-Terrorism Command (CTC), or SO15, at the Metropolitan Police, Commander Richard Walton, have mentioned the fact that the jihad in Syria is increasingly becoming a security threat beyond its borders.

In his speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on 8 October, Parker highlighted that MI5 had noted a substantial increase in cases with connections to Syria. According to Parker, “a growing proportion of our casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the UK who have travelled to fight there or who aspire to do so”.

He also spoke of how MI5 judged that “[Jabhat] al-Nusra and other extremist Sunni groups there aligned with Al-Qaeda aspire to attack Western countries”.

This threat was brought into sharper domestic focus in December, when Walton told an audience in London that his officers were “starting to see signs” that Britons were returning from Syria tasked with carrying out attacks back at home.

The assessment of an expanding threat from the European contingent in Syria was also emphasised in December by Belgian authorities, which told the press that they were assessing a group of “Dutch-speaking Belgian jihadists” who had participated in an attack in Iraq. A source from the Belgian police believed that “the leaders of the Syrian networks are determined to export – in time – to Morocco and Tunisia the fighting capacity that is now assembled in Syria”.

The Belgian officials were also quoted saying, “Al-Qaeda has four to five thousand jihadist combatants at hand deployed in Syria who have passports from a Schengen area country”. This is a very high figure that exceeds most public assessments provided by European security officials so far.

Outlook

There is a rising level of concern among security officials across Europe consulted by IHS Jane’s about the threat emanating from Syria. The plots highlighted to date probably represent only the beginning of a threat that will evolve in various ways in the coming years.

Although it is by no means the case that every individual returning from Syria will pose a domestic threat or will launch an attack, the high number of European jihadist fighters in Syria means that a threat of some sort is likely to emerge. Moreover, a protraction of Syria’s civil war would mean more individuals would be drawn to the battlefield, therefore increasing the pool of potential jihadist recruits who could be a threat back at home.

Indeed, the gravity of the situation was highlighted by a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessment reported in The Wall Street Journal on 31 December, that drew on analysis of previous insurgencies, concluding that the civil war in Syria “could last another decade or more”.

The foreign fighter contingent in Syria is likely to match this timescale and is therefore also likely to be at the heart of Europe’s militant threat for the next five years at least – a period of time that will only increase the longer the conflict continues.

Case Study: Abu Huthaifa

Abu Huthaifa’s profile appears on the Facebook page of the “Army of Mohammad Peace and Blessings be upon him – Abu Ubaidah al-Muhajir” (which translates as the migrant – meaning that the fighter is or was outside his homeland). Abu Ubaidah al-Muhajir appears to be the name of one of the units fighting in the conflict.

IHS Jane’s assesses that the Arabic-language page has an international jihadist tenor, rather than exclusively Syrian jihadist.

Unusually, most of its updates are about members who have been killed in action rather than about major victories or battles, with a particular bias towards recording the deaths of Tunisian citizens.

According to the Facebook account, the ‘brother’ and media activist from Luxembourg, Abu Huthaifa, left his family back home. He entered Turkey to study, then moved to Syria to support the religion of Allah. He was not more than 18 years old. He was martyred in al-Safira, Aleppo governorate.

The comments following the entry about Abu Huthaifa’s death are all blessings calling for Allah to rest his soul. Two more individuals who had been killed and mentioned on the page were a Tunisian called Abu Maryam, and media activist Abu Usama. The comments also include links to YouTube videos that allegedly were produced by Abu Huthaifa.